Human Ecological Religious Leadership

My “call”

In seminary the most common question after “Wait, that’s due TODAY?” is “so tell me about your call”; in other words, “when did you know you were called by God/god/the Holy Spirit/the Divine/some higher force to go into religious leadership?” I knew some folks who have a very definitive “call” story but for me it was a long series of revelations. What it boils down to is that I loved social justice work but I felt like there was something missing and, for me, that something was spirit of community.

Discernment

When I started seriously considering religious leadership as a career path I contacted the alumni office and asked for a list of any COA alums who had gone onto religious leadership. Recognizing that not everyone keeps in touch with their undergrad and still others may be highly active in religious communities without having attained a professional degree in the subject, it was still a disappointingly small list.

There were four names on it.

Now I know that College of the Atlantic is not a large school but even within that reality four is a small number of people. Organized religion is just not a huge part of the day to day life of students at College of the Atlantic; it wasn’t really a big part of my life when I started there in 2007. Over time, though, I found myself being pulled in that direction and grasping hold of the thought that ministry was not an incompatible goal within the context of human ecology. I even wrote my human ecology paper on the 7 principles of Unitarian Universalism as my personal definition of human ecology.

I took those names and happily one of the people, Paul, was a minister from my own denomination, Unitarian Universalism; we were able to talk on the phone and even meet up in person at our national denominational meeting the following June. Later, when I was accepted into the Master of Divinity program at Boston University School of Theology, Paul shared that news with his congregation during their sharing of joys and sorrows.

Religious Education

Boston University School of Theology isn’t like College of the Atlantic in almost any way. There are students, faculty, staff, and buildings but beyond that they are pretty dissimilar. I’m at one of the larger research universities in the country, sitting in lectures with nationally renowned theologians, and a member of the Boston Theological Institute which gives me access to all 10 divinity schools here in Boston and the surrounding areas. Martin Luther King Jr. went to seminary here as the school is so fond of reminding people.

When I walked in here on that first day of orientation I was met with the nervous energy of a bunch of adults acting like middle schoolers at that first dance where nobody wants to step into the middle and just go for it. If you’ll remember COA orientation it involves a scavenger hunt and jumping into the ocean. Seminary orientation involved prayer and a whole lot of Jesus.

Unitarian Universalism is unique in that it’s not a specifically Christian denomination that grew out of the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961. We’re historically very liberal; both denominations have been ordaining women since the mid-1800s, openly gay people since the late 1970s, openly transgender people since the 1980s, and we’ve often been at the forefront of various social justice campaigns.

While at College of the Atlantic my identity as an openly transgender social justice activist was never a concern to almost anybody; in seminary I realized I had little in common with my classmates. There were a few gay and lesbian people, and a person here and there who clearly had some understanding of LGBTQ issues. I wasn’t suddenly thrown into school with a bunch of people who were going to try to save me from the sins of my homosexuality but I wasn’t with people who I felt like I could relax around.

Now THAT’S what I call Human Ecology

I have a therapist. I swear the first two things ministers tell you when you tell them you’re planning to go into ministry are 1) “don’t” and 2) “get a therapist.” So I have this therapist who said to try to treat school as an anthropological exploration. She wanted me to act as an outsider learning about this other culture without fully immersing myself in it if that was too painful. That’s not how I learned to learn in my time at College of the Atlantic. As human ecologists we don’t learn only by observing but by immersion and participation in community.

As a human ecologist I am asked to study how I and others interact with our natural and human-manufactured environments. Seminary is a human manufactured environment; we sit in rooms and learn how to read ancient texts, or how to talk to somebody about a crisis in their life, or how to evangelize (yes, that is an actual class and no, I don’t plan to put it into practice as it was taught). I cannot learn from the outside; I have to jump in and try to carve out a space for myself while respecting that others don’t see that space for me as valid.

So I’m here. Things have calmed down a little. People are used to seeing me around even if a number of them don’t really agree with my “lifestyle.” I know that my own denomination is fully supportive even if some of the people I’m in school with don’t understand how that could be. I am serving my denomination on a national level as the Young Adult worship coordinator and on a local level I help lead worship, work with children, and provide pastoral care for people going through difficult times.

The future

I’ve only just finished my first year so I don’t definitively know where I’m going in the future. If I could pick my ideal future career I’d serve as an associate minister with a focus on social justice. I’d be able to continue my social justice work through a ministerial context while still working within a congregational setting. I think the liberal faith voice is essential when “liberal” and “faith” are often pitted against one another in our national dialogues. My background as an activist is integral to my future as a minister and my education as a human ecologist is the lens through which I act in the world. College of the Atlantic has been a non-traditional but hugely beneficial platform from which to approach seminary.

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